MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is an astonishing science-fiction triumph

Haunting, stunning, thrilling and daring, Denis Villeneuve's late-game sequel is everything a blockbuster film should be

| October 3, 2017 | 0 Comments

When you think of the filmmaking greats still working today, you can bring quite a few names to mind: Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and the list goes on, but when it comes to sci-fi, not many people have done as much for the genre as Ridley Scott has done. The thing is, Scott has only really directed three sci-fi films (not including the sequels/prequels spawned from them), “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “The Martian.” With each of these films, you could forget about the other two and the effect that Scott has had on the genre would still stay the same. While “Alien” will always be a personal favorite of mine, there’s no denying that to this day, “Blade Runner” still remains Scott’s crowning achievement. Yet, when the film released, it was met to tepid reviews and an even more cold box-office return. Perhaps that’s why it took over 35 years for the film to receive a proper sequel. Unlike the “Prometheus” series of prequels for the “Alien” films, Scott decided not to step behind the camera for the sequel, titled “Blade Runner 2049,” but to let another filmmaker step in, filmmaking great on the rise Denis Villeneuve, director of my #1 of 2016, “Arrival.”

And if “Blade Runner 2049” doesn’t solidify Villeneuve as an all-time great, nothing ever will.

Set 30 years after the events of the first film, we pick up in Los Angeles in 2049, a young cop, K (Ryan Gosling), labeled a blade runner, tasked with hunting down replicants (synthetic humans used initially for slave labor before being banned on Earth), takes down a combative replicant (Dave Bautista) and discovers a grave site of an unknown replicant on his property. When the remains are studied by K and his commanding officer, Joshi (Robin Wright), they discover a strange attribute about the replicant that could change the course of human history. As K does more investigative digging, he eventually finds that the only person he can turn to for answers is none other than Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) himself, missing for over 30 years. All the while, blind billionaire replicant mogul Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his faithful assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), begin to investigate the same matter for their own gain, taking out anyone in their way who might seek to stop them.

I feel like I’ve given too much away already, but there’s so so so much more to “Blade Runner 2049” that I wish I could tell you, but for fear of spoilers, I won’t. “Blade Runner 2049” is a masterful work of science-fiction for many reasons, but the biggest reason is that it continues the story almost seamlessly in a way that most sequels, especially ones that switch up protagonists on you, can’t do. This is a film that knows every living detail of the story and the world surrounding it and crafts it with such artistic dexterity that most films of this nature never even come close to achieving. This is a story that you might think will lead you into familiar territory, but never does in the end. It’s this sort of unexpected turn that always feels natural, never feeling like screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green are trying to pull a “gotcha!” moment during the film at any time.

Gosling, while wonderful in “La La Land,” might set a new precedent for his forthcoming work as K here. This performance has a lot of really wonderful emotional layers Gosling gets to play with. There’s a lot of uncertainty within K about his life, his work, his goals, and Gosling really taps into all of these different aspects of K’s strengths and weaknesses wonderfully. Ford, forever riding the nostalgia train with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Blade Runner 2049” and the upcoming “Indiana Jones” sequel, is once again really great as Deckard here. While he isn’t given as much material as Gosling is here, the way in which Ford is able to so precisely get into characters he played over 30 years ago with such ease is quite entertaining to watch here.

Meanwhile, supporting performances are also really well-done here. Ana de Armas as K’s holographic girlfriend Joi does nice work. De Armas has a history of being much better than the movies she finds herself in, so to see the Cuban actress finally match her work with the film around her is really nice to see for the promising actress. Wright is always wonderful as the cold, authoritative type, and it’s no different here as Joshi. You get to see a real maternal side to her quite a bit when she interacts with K, making her tough demeanor often times seem warmer than her typical characters, which was great to see here. Leto is a fine villain, but really isn’t in much of the film at all, relegating the main villain role more to Hoeks more than anyone else, and what a terrifying villain Luv is. While her smile is sweet, Luv is a terrifying killing machine that will stop at nothing to make sure her employer is pleased with her work. Unlike most cold killers in films, Luv gets to show off her vulnerable side around Wallace, humanizing her into more of a slave-like character than that of a true sociopath, albeit this doesn’t soothe the horrific acts she commits. Other performances from familiar faces such as Bautista, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Wood Harris and Barkhad Abdi, however brief some of them might be, are all very welcome additions to the cast.

Plainly put, “Blade Runner 2049” might be one of the most beautifully shot films I have ever seen, and they only showed us the film in 2D on a relatively small screen. I can’t imagine seeing Roger Deakins’ cinematography in 3D or IMAX, because it’s just that stunning. Paired with the absolutely seamless visual effects that might be some of the most seamless mix of practical effects and CGI I’ve seen on film before. And yet, like its predecessor, while the film is stunning in every aesthetic way, “Blade Runner 2049” never feels like the aesthetic is the focal point here, but the story woven from the beautiful surrounding world. When a film has both to offer, not just one over the other, there’s this surreal sense of immersion that you don’t get in hardly any films left today. With “Blade Runner 2049,” I can marvel both at the insane visuals and the engaging story simultaneously without ever missing a beat.

I will admit, I was a bit sad to see composer Jóhann Jóhannsson exit the film’s score so suddenly, but with Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s wonderfully trance-like score that almost makes me forget about initial disappointment in the first place. What’s wonderful about the score here is that while it does reference the original “Blade Runner” score by Vangelis in short bursts, this is an entirely new score with an entirely new sound to it. It’s still electronic like the original, but the film’s score here is much more plodding and haunting. Wallfisch and Zimmer find themselves favoring long, drawn-out chords, rather than pulse-pounding, intense music, leaving the film feeling much more restrained and almost off-putting, which gives the film a really unique tone about it (no pun intended).

At 163 minutes, “Blade Runner 2049” is one of the longest wide-release films of 2017 so far, as well as the longest of Villeneuve’s career, but the magic here is that while the film is very long, it never feels that way. Sure, the film does last quite a long time, but the pacing of the film never feels inorganically slow. One of the wonderful things about Villeneuve is that he knows exactly when to speed things up and slow them down and move them all around for audience members to really move best to. This film covers a whole lot of ground, so to have a director with such a predilection for timing really helps when constructing something so incredibly massive into one film.

But Villeneuve’s work doesn’t stop there. It would’ve been easy for any other director to do one of two things: 1. Copy Scott’s style of filmmaking to try to make it as similar to “Blade Runner” as possible, 2. Take on the film as a typical sci-fi action film with no regard for the story. The thing with “Blade Runner 2049” is that Villeneuve directs it like a drama film that just happens to take place in the future. Sure, there are a few action sequences throughout the film, but most of the film consists of dialogue or bigger shots of not much action. Villeneuve is far more concerned with creating a world to encapsulate this story in in a new and refreshing way. 30 years has passed in this film’s world, and much like any society, 30 years can do a lot for an environment. For a filmmaker to recreate Scott’s vision of futuristic L.A. is like if a filmmaker nowadays tried to pass off 1987 as 2017. The innovation that has gone into this new world makes “Blade Runner 2049” feel familiar, but newer in a way that feels really organic to the growth of this endlessly fascinating universe.

And then there’s the $1 million question: is “Blade Runner 2049” better than the original? In my humble opinion, I would have to concur that yes, “Blade Runner 2049” is better than the original film. That being said, “Blade Runner 2049” and its improvements in no way diminish the astonishing achievements that Scott hit with the “Blade Runner,” much like how the improvements seen in “Aliens” don’t make “Alien” feel any less special of a film (though I do prefer “Alien,” actually). They’re different entities with different stories and characters that function incredibly different from each other, despite continuing the same story. What Villeneuve has done here is much different than what Scott did in 1982, which not only makes “Blade Runner 2049” feel like a successful endeavor on its own, but the expertise put into each films will surely cause a harsh debate about which one is truly the better installment.

While it doesn’t necessarily change the content of the film at all, I do want to applaud the studio and the filmmakers for having the guts to make a film as massive as this and slap it with an R-rating. While this shouldn’t be considered a risk, in a world full of neutered blockbusters, and a world of dull sci-fi, I’m happy to see a film like this pack such a bite. Exploitative? Not at all. Bold? You betcha.

While I was unable to see the film in IMAX, with Deakins’ special formatting for the film specifically for IMAX, I can’t imagine there being a better option to experience “Blade Runner 2049” in. I do wish Warner Bros. were showing the film in IMAX 3D to go with its standard 3D release as well, but I can also imagine that the film would be stunning in 3D too. While I do wish that the formats could get the best of both worlds in IMAX 3D, I don’t think there’s truly a bad way to experience “Blade Runner 2049.” 2D, 3D, Dolby Cinema, RPX, IMAX, as long as you’re seeing the film on a big screen, you’ve won.

To make it short, I’m not sure I’ve felt this way about a major blockbuster film since “Mad Max: Fury Road” back in May of 2015. Except in the case of “Mad Max,” it took me two viewings to truly appreciate the genius that George Miller has achieved in that film (it was still a 5/5 on my first viewing, but it just improved even more upon a second one), but with “Blade Runner 2049,” I feel as if that I do feel the genius that Villeneuve has struck gold with here, and now I just hope that my subsequent viewings of the film (hopefully in 3D and IMAX) will further expound upon the achievement he’s crafted here. It simply cannot be overstated how absolutely stunning “Blade Runner 2049” is in every way, with many setting a standard for what any Hollywood movie should strive for nowadays. Deakins basically has already won his Oscar for cinematography here (and if he doesn’t, it’s rigged), and I can’t imagine that many people behind the camera on this film won’t be up for as many gold statues as they can get their hands on. Incredibly strong storytelling mixed with a unique, stunning aesthetic and one of the more haunting tones of a sci-fi film in recent memory, and you have a film like none other. Accept no substitutions.

5/5

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, with Dave Bautista, and Jared Leto.
Runtime: 163 minutes.
Rating: R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language.
Also available in RealD 3D, Dolby Cinema and IMAX.

Alcon Media Group presents, in association with Columbia Pictures, a Ridley Scott/Alcon Entertainment/Bud Yorkin production, in association with Torridon Films and 16:14 Entertainment, a Denis Villeneuve film, “Blade Runner 2049”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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